'My Dream Came True': Ernie Sabella Reflects on 30 Years Of The Lion King | Playbill

Special Features 'My Dream Came True': Ernie Sabella Reflects on 30 Years Of The Lion King

The Broadway vet voiced Pumbaa in the Disney classic, and he's about to sing "Hakuna Matata" again at the Hollywood Bowl.

Ernie Sabella

Broadway vet Ernie Sabella knows how to charm a room. As the stage and screen star prepares to sing in the 30th anniversary concert presentation of The Lion King on May 24 and 25 at the Hollywood Bowl in California, his ebullient energy and good humor can't help but catch the attention of everyone he passes.

“I call it my nature of positivity, but I guess you could call it 'Hakuna Matata'” Sabella laughs from the sunny corner of the Las Vegas, Nevada, café he has ensconced himself in, a cannoli in hand. “People just like having me around.”

Those people include Disney, which is gathering a cast of old and new faces for The Lion King At The Hollywood Bowl: Jennifer Hudson, Nathan Lane, Jeremy Irons, Billy Eichner, Jason Weaver, Bradley Gibson, North West, Heather Headley, and Lion King stage alum Lebo M. The special will also stream on Disney+ at a later date.

That it has now been 30 years since Sabella first voiced the worry-free warthog Pumbaa in the animated classic is the second most-interesting anniversary he’s celebrating: 1994 also marked the year he began dating his treasured wife, Cheryl.

“That was the kind of year you dream about,” Sabella crows proudly. “You can’t do better than that year.”

1994 may have been a banner year, but Sabella was hardly an overnight sensation. By the time he had reached the auspicious turning point, he had two Broadway credits under his belt (The Robber Bridegroom and Little Johnny Jones), and was in the midst of a third, the immensely popular Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls that would begin his life-long public association with Nathan Lane (who voiced Timon in The Lion King).

“It was the first time we worked together on a big project, but we had done readings,” Sabella shares. “I knew him in the late'70s, when I worked Off-Broadway, and I would say something nice to him, and he would just smirk and walk away. I thought, well, I'll probably never be friends with that guy!”

Without warning, everything changed at the first reading of Guys and Dolls. “I was playing Harry the Horse, which is a small part. But I knew there was one moment, where if I just took a risk and jumped off the high board, and just held—if I didn't speak for like 20 seconds—there could be a payoff. My line, after Nathan said, ‘We’re getting married’ was, ‘Congratulations! You can use my getaway car…My Buick.’ And I just held.” 

Sabella pauses, stretching out the silence between car and Buick as he did when playing up the tension between the two gangsters as they are eavesdropped upon by a cop. “And let me tell you, it brought down the house. We hit the act break, I go into the next room, and Nathan follows me. And he said to me, ‘What do you want to do next?' We hadn’t even done this one, but without thinking, I just said, ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.’ And without pause, he said, ‘Good, me too.’”

The company

The duo would go on to star opposite each other in the splashy Sondheim comedy. But as he and Lane settled into a comedic rhythm together, Sabella’s fairytale was almost upended before it could even begin.

“We were in performances of Guys and Dolls, and as I walked out to have lunch at Sardi’s, where my portrait is hung, I saw this young, smiling person with big blue eyes.” 

While Sabella always makes a point of signing for anyone lingering at the stage door, he couldn’t help but gravitate towards the woman who was standing outside of the main throng. Her name was Cheryl. She was a computer programmer. “I was smitten.” 

The pair promenaded up and down Shubert Alley before Sabella thought of a way to ensure he could see her again. After inquiring about her theatre-going habits, he made a big gesture of asking her to meet up after those shows to tell him if it had been good: “After all, I only had one day off, and I didn’t want to spend it going to see a dud.” 

She promised, and thus began Sabella’s anxious evening, hoping she would return to the stage door.

“That night, after the second show, everyone runs out, but Nathan and this guy…” Sabella bursts out into a peal of laughter. “These two guys didn't move! They were really going at it, there was a lot of abuse going back and forth, this guy was so mad that Nathan was getting laughs on his ad-libs, and I'm in the middle of it, thinking I’m gonna die if I don’t get out that door. Nathan stormed up the stairs, I followed him, and he said, ‘You have to come with me, Faith Prince is doing a nightclub act, and I’m too angry to go there alone.'" 

But all Sabella could think about was, "OH MY GOD, THE GIRL!’" Luckily, the worker at the stage door told Cheryl about the fight and that Sabella had to leave. "She wrote me a big note, with her phone number at the end. But she was 24, and still living with her mom and dad. So she did not leave me her home phone number, she left me her office number. And it was a three-day holiday. So I’m leaving message after message after message. And finally, it’s Tuesday, and she gets back to work and she hears the messages, and when her coworker asked, ‘Who was that?’ She told her I was the man she was going to marry." The lesson of that story? "Lightning strikes, and you have to be ready for it, even if you have to break up a fight to catch it.”

Brian Stokes Mitchell, Ernie Sabella and Company in Man of La Mancha. Photo by Joan Marcus

Only a few short months later, Sabella caught another lightning strike when The Lion King was released to theatres, becoming an international sensation. Whe and Lane were first called in to test for Disney’s new animated feature, “it happened on a lunch break. We went over together, and the producer wanted us to read for the hyenas. And we were riffing, we were improv-ing, just goofing around. And then we just left because there was only one guy auditioning us, and he was staring at us. So we got in the elevator, and I said, ‘Well, at least we have our nighttime job,’ talking about Guys and Dolls. Hoo boy, was I wrong.”

A month later, the pair got the call from Disney that they had written the roles of Timon and Pumbaa to play upon the quick-fire comedic style he and Lane shared. While Sabella doesn’t regret the journey he has had voicing the iconic warthog whatsoever, he does regret one particular choice. “I didn’t know what a Pumbaa was, or what he sounded like. And so on my first line, I just did the most ridiculous thing I could think of", Sabella laughs. “And of course, Nathan just did New York. And now I’ve spent the last 30 years doing something that just kills my voice. But hey, it’s great, and the kids love it.”

Indeed, over the years, Sabella has returned to his Pumbaa voice again and again, including in the '90s TV show Timon & Pumbaa, which ran for four years and 85 episodes. And even though he now lives in Las Vegas, he still frequently flies to New York and Los Angeles for engagements.

Getting to voice Pumbaa, and bring so much joy to so many generations, has been a supreme honor for the stage veteran. “I didn't realize the extent that I had been that kind of influence in someone's life, until the internet. But it had been my dream since childhood. When I was a kid, I guess four or five, my mom would sit me down on the couch, and turn on The Wonderful World of Disney. Years later, I’m at a Hollywood Party, and the guy who voiced Woody the Woodpecker was there, just sitting in a rocking chair, just talking like Woody as everyone smiled. And I thought, ‘God. I want that. Let me be a voice that kids go crazy for, and remember all their childhood.’ And my dream came true.”

 
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